by Pete Mazzaccaro
Last week’s edition of the Philadelphia City Paper featured an article on the work of Richard Boardman, a longtime Free Library of Philadelphia employee who has spent the last three years creating a map of Philadelphia’s neighborhoods.
It’s a fascinating and sprawling project that traces the roots of contemporary neighborhoods and neighborhood names long lost to time. Boardman told the City Paper he’s working to create an online version of the maps and make them available to everyone.
You don’t have to have lived in Philadelphia very long to think that such an undertaking might be a fool’s errand. Or even a Sisyphean task. Many people in the city who live on the borders of neighborhoods will choose their neighborhood, despite ZIP code evidence that suggests they are wrong. On Johnson Street, it’s never clear whether you live in Germantown or Mt. Airy.
An interesting aspect of Boardman’s work is in looking at the historical evolution of neighborhoods, such as where their names came from and what subdivision of those neighborhoods existed in the past. Between Mt. Airy and Chestnut Hill, for instance, was a place called Cresheim, named for the German village from which that creek valley’s original settlers came. Much of the rest of Chestnut Hill was originally called Sommerhausen, another nod to the early residents’ hometown.
I’ve heard other local place names that don’t really show up on maps. The area south of the intersection of Walnut Lane and Wissahickon Avenue is called Blue Bell Hill by some residents. It’s not as old as nearby Rittenhouse Town, but speaks to a sense many have in which a larger place name like Philadelphia or Mt. Airy is not specific enough.
Broadman also mentioned an area in Chestnut Hill called Pumpkintown. I found an old book in Google’s online book archives called “Ancient and Modern Germantown, Mount Airy and Chestnut Hill” by Samuel Fitch Hotchkin, published in 1889, that references the Pumpkintown name.
“The upper part of Chestnut Hill on the Reading pike used to rejoice in the name Pumpkintown,” Hotchkin wrote, “but perhaps the appellation is now fading away.”
Chestnut Hill is rare in Philadelphia in that its borders are pretty definite. That’s helped a great deal by geography – the neighborhood’s north and east borders are the city’s limits, its south and west borders are wooded creeks.
But cracks do exist for some. I have seen many a local news story by a network TV station and even the Philadelphia Inquirer lost for a firm location name around the intersection of Ivy Hill Road and Stenton Avenue. Is it Mt. Airy? Chestnut Hill? Wadsworth? You’d think the area is a Bermuda Triangle of geolocation.
We tend to believe that place is definite. But neighborhoods have shifted before. They’ve sprung up to define groups of people within larger neighborhoods and have disappeared when the name didn’t seem to suit those who lived here. I can think of nothing less like Chestnut Hill today than Pumpkintown, a name that smacks of rural fields, barns and grain silos. It’s easy to see why that name might have faded.
Place, it seems, is as much a state of mind as it is a coordinate.